Operation Keelhaul was carried out in Northern Italy by British and American forces to repatriate Soviet Armed Forces POWs of the Nazis to the Soviet Union between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947. The term has been later applied – specifically after the publication of Julius Epstein's eponymous book – to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of World War II that sealed the fate of millions of post-war refugees fleeing the Soviet Union.
One of the conclusions of the Yalta Conference was that the western Allies would return all Soviet citizens who found themselves in their zones to the Soviet Union. This immediately affected the liberated Soviet prisoners of war, but was also extended to all Soviet refugees. In exchange, the Soviet government agreed to hand over several thousand western Allied prisoners of war whom they had liberated from German prisoner of war camps.
On March 31, 1945, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded the final form of their plans in a secret codicil to the agreement. Outlining the plan to forcibly return the refugees to the Soviet Union, this codicil was kept secret from the American and British people for over 50 years.
Treatment of prisoners and refugees
The refugee columns fleeing the Soviet-occupied parts of Europe numbered millions of people. They included many anti-communists of several categories, assorted civilians, both from the Soviet Union and from Yugoslavia, and fascist collaborationists from eastern Slavic and other countries.
At the end of World War II there were more than five million refugees from the Soviet Union in Western Europe, of whom approximately three million had been forced laborers (Ost-Arbeiter). On return to the Soviet Union, Ost-Arbeiter were sometimes treated as traitors. Many were transported to remote locations in the Soviet Union and were denied basic rights and the opportunity to further their education.
In particular, Russian Cossacks of the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps of the Waffen-SS with their relatives were forcibly repatriated from the Western occupation zones of Allied-occupied Austria to the Soviet occupation zones of Austria and Allied-occupied Germany. Often prisoners were summarily executed by receiving Communist authorities, sometimes within earshot of the British.
The Ustaše from Yugoslavia were repatriated to the Yugoslav Partisans in the events known as the Bleiburg repatriations, where a part of the prisoners were killed, while the majority were sent to internment camps.
Among those handed over were White émigré-Russians who had never been Soviet citizens, but who had fought for Nazi Germany against the Soviets during the war, including General Andrei Shkuro and the Ataman of the Don Cossack host Pyotr Krasnov. This was done despite the official statement of the British Foreign Office policy after the Yalta Conference that only Soviet citizens, who had been such after September 1, 1939, were to be compelled to return to the Soviet Union or handed over to Soviet officials in other locations (for example see the Repatriation of Cossacks after World War II).
The actual "Operation Keelhaul" was the last forced repatriation and involved the selection and subsequent transfer of approximately one thousand "Russians" from the camps of Bagnoli, Aversa, Pisa, and Riccione. Applying the "McNarney-Clark Directive", subjects who had served in the German Army were selected for shipment starting August 14, 1946. It was obvious to all that prisoners were sent to a fate of execution, torture, and slave labor. The transfer was codenamed "East Wind" and took place at St. Valentin in Austria on May 8 and 9, 1947. This operation marked the end of forced repatriations of Russians after World War II, and ran parallel to Operation Fling that helped Soviet defectors to escape from the Soviet Union.
On the other side of the exchange, the Soviet leadership found out that despite the demands set forth by Stalin, British intelligence was retaining a number of anti-Communist prisoners with the intention of reviving "anti-Soviet operations" under orders from Churchill.
Following the post-Stalin release of several hundred survivors of the Soviet camps in which victims of repatriation were held, a Soviet newspaper editorial noted
All their sins have been forgiven. But the English and American bayonets, truncheons, machine guns and tanks used against them will never be forgotten. No Russian will ever forget Lienz, Dachau, Plattling, Toronto, and other places of extradition, including New York. And they must never be forgotten....it shows you cannot trust the capitalist states in the future."
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called this operation "the last secret of World War II." He contributed to a legal defence fund set up to help Nikolai Tolstoy, who was charged with libel in a 1989 case brought by Lord Aldington over war crimes allegations made by Tolstoy related to this operation. Tolstoy lost the case in the British courts but avoided paying damages by declaring bankruptcy.
Tolstoy described the scene of Americans returning to the internment camp after delivering a shipment of people to the Soviets. "The Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees."
- Swedish extradition of Baltic soldiers
- Western betrayal
- Repatriation of Cossacks after World War II
- Bleiburg repatriations
- Collaboration during World War II
- Forced labor in Germany during World War II
- Helmuth von Pannwitz
- Russian Liberation Army
- Soviet repressions against former prisoners of war
- Andrey Vlasov
- XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps
- Lieutenant-General Charles Keightley, commander of the V Corps
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- Павел Полян – Остарбайтеры (Russian)
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- Tolstoy, Nikolai. Victims of Yalta, originally published in London, 1977. Revised edition 1979. ISBN 0-552-11030-2
- Epstein, Julius. Operation Keelhaul, Devin-Adair, 1973. ISBN 978-0-8159-6407-0
- Return to the scene of the crime Rutland Herald Online